Design Thinking: Bringing creativity to a new level in Potsdam, Germany


School of Design Thinking, Potsdam, GermanyAfter meeting faculty member Caroline Szymanski at the Lift Conference in Geneva, and participating in the “Think with your hands” workshop that she co-led there, I just had to pay a visit to The School of Design Thinking this past week, while I was in Berlin.  The School of Design Thinking (nicknamed “The D-School”) is a part of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) of Potsdam University, located in Potsdam, Germany.

Just hours after taking an overnight flight from New York to Berlin, I took the short train ride into more rural Potsdam.  As it turned out, this would not be my only visit to Potsdam during my stay in Berlin.  One visit to the D-school wasn’t nearly enough!

If you have any interest in creativity, how the creative process works, and how to bring your access to creativity to a new level, you’ve got to check out “Design Thinking”!

According to Dr. Claudia Nicolai, General Program Manager for the Design Thinking program at HPI, “Design Thinking is a human-centered approach for innovation. It is a mindset that tries to build upon method tools that we’ll have, kind of, inherited from different fields. First of all, design and how designers think and work. Secondly, ethnography, anthropology, how to understand how people actually live and what are their unmet desires and needs. Combined with aspects of feasibility that takes us to the field of technology and available technologies in the market and in the future, as well as combining that with business viability.”

A hands-on, two semester course, the D-School program attracts students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines.  All have one thing in common—they want to learn and experience creating in a way that gives them an edge in innovation, whether it is marketing, product, service, or technological innovation.

Dr. Nicolai indicated that the program attracts people from various fields: “People from all disciplines see a benefit in doing a Design Thinking class or a Design Thinking program, because it enables you to work together with people from other disciplines and these opportunities you don’t get that often in other master classes or MBA programs. So, it’s even interesting for designers, interaction designers, fashion designers, industrial designers, to understand how does it feel to work on a team with people who have a different background, who have a different expertise.”

On my first visit to the School of Design Thinking, I visited the first-semester course, in session for it’s very first day.  I noticed a very high level of  intelligence, and willingness to play among the new students.  They were just getting their feet wet with design thinking, but it was clear how eager they were to start.  Having just received their first project, they were already planning how they would go out into the real world, start interviewing potential “users,” and only then begin to see where their project might lead.

The students get to experience working within multi-disciplinary teams. “When it comes to the teamwork,” observed Dr. Nicolai, “it also pushes them out of their comfort zone. So it’s also a new way, not only how we bring together people of different backgrounds, but also think differently about leadership and creative leadership—so, how you’re going to lead teams in the future.”

Before I left that first day from the HPI D-School, Dr. Nicolai invited me to attend another day, when the advanced group (second semester) was meeting.  I’m glad I accepted her invitation because, while I was very impressed by my first visit, this second visit blew me away!  I was amazed by how refined the second semester students’ sense of design thinking had become after just one semester.  Having just received real projects to work on—from real clients at major corporation—they openly explored, brainstormed, and inquired with confidence, all the while not being at all attached to where their project might lead.

The design thinking methodology helps cultivate both the analytical and creative sides of problem solving. Dr. Nicolai put it this way: “For me, the main objective—the main take-away of the class—is to gather something that I’d like to call ‘creative mastery.’ So, how to deal with, in business terms, complex problems; how to deal with problems that are not that easy to solve because they go beyond ‘improvement,’ they go beyond ‘incremental steps.’ And that’s something that can be helpful for everybody.”

My impression was that the D-school curriculum would give a student seeking a career in any design, business, or creativity related field a clear advantage.  The good thing is, this program is open to students from anywhere in the world: “The Design Thinking program is first of all open to IT students enrolled in a bachelors/masters program here at our institute,” said Dr. Nicolai, “but [it is] also open to our overall mother institution, which is the University of Potsdam. And then even beyond. So everybody can apply for that program. You just have to be enrolled somewhere on the planet, in any bachelor, master, or MBA program.”

I’m thinking, it might be time to go back to school! 🙂

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